Recent media coverage on prison life suggests that it is all ‘a bit of a doddle’. Attention is focused on the cost of keeping in prison men and women who have many victims between them.
Some victims are ‘primary’ sufferers because of the wrong done to them. Others are hurt because loved ones or key persons in their lives have been killed or seriously harmed. Family, friends, work colleagues and many more are included in this larger category.
Television and press coverage have highlighted that some offenders leave prison better qualified and with a higher potential earning capacity than when they went in. Others are shown watching colour TVs in their cells, or playing billiards, pool or snooker. The TV programme on Holloway Prison centred around the ladies’ hairdressing salon.
But is it really so easy in prison? Before answering that, we have an important question to answer.
What is the purpose of imprisonment in the UK? Is it punitive? Is it restorative? Is it to protect the public by keeping dangerous people out of society’s way (previously often accomplished by the death sentence)? Or is it a mixture of such things?
We should note there is little biblical justification for custodial sentencing. It is true that the Old Testament instituted the death penalty in the nation state of Israel for sins that would wreck lives and society. More significantly, the principle of capital punishment for murder preceded these Mosaic laws (Genesis 9:5-6).
Whether we are right to replace the death sentence by life imprisonment — or to imprison criminals for theft-based and assault-based crimes rather than demand restitution and compensation — is beyond my brief. My burden is to make Christ known to prisoners.
It seems completely right to at least incarcerate those who would otherwise continue to murder or molest further
victims. And having substituted imprisonment for crimes that would have once been dealt with by capital punishment or restoration and compensation, does it not makes sense to help the convicted criminal come out a better person?
Is it wrong to treat prisoners humanely, even if some of their crimes seem sub-human? Is it wrong to allow them some creature comforts? Is the punitive element not met by the imprisonment itself? Do we really need to make their custody as miserable as possible — since they are already paying for their crimes by losing their liberty?
Christianity believes in treating people as people, not as things. The authorities should punish evildoers, but do so fairly and humanely (in all fairness to prison authorities, they do try to follow such principles, albeit from a humanistic standpoint).
If we regard incarceration as the penalty itself, why should we begrudge a few creature comforts to inmates? In the broader sense, it is the desire to do good to prisoners that makes our own gospel ministry so welcome in the prisons.
We tell of a Saviour who can forgive and change the lives of those who repent and turn to him. There can be no greater comfort for convicted criminals than to know that Jesus has borne all the punishment of their sins by dying on the cross.
Through the Holy Spirit, the ‘vilest offender who truly believes’ can have his sight lifted beyond prison walls and years of punishment ahead. That is why
DAYLIGHT Christian Prison Trust, along with others, encourages Christians to go into prisons with the gospel.
I recall discussing the gospel with men at a London prison in the one hour in 24 they were allowed out of their cells. Can a colour TV compensate for 23 hours within a cell made for one and inhabited by two? Bear in mind that their toilet, their beds and their table to eat on all occupy the same confined space.
Not everyone is ‘banged up’ for 23 hours a day, but most of us would find even half that time harrowing and terribly boring.
And what about qualifications being gained in prison? That seems a good way to encourage inmates to earn money on release, without resorting to the crimes that brought them into prison. ‘Let him that stole steal no more’ (Ephesians 4:28).
Many offenders are poorly educated, with an alarmingly high illiteracy rate. If they are properly educated in prison and equipped with new skills — which reduce the likelihood of re-offending — that has to be a step in the right direction.
And what about the ‘Holloway hair-dos’? Very many women in prison have great emotional trials. These can be far worse than those of their male counterparts, often because they bring their children’s problems with them.
I spoke at a Mothers’ Day service at one women’s prison and found it emotionally challenging myself. Perhaps this was
because many female offenders seem also to be exploited victims — again much more than their male counterparts.
If a nice hair-do now and then gives them a little stabilising comfort and self-respect, then I thank God for the hairdressing salon!
But does not all this remind us of something far more important? Have you noticed the themes we have touched upon? They are punishment, change, protection, restlessness, boredom, equipping and comfort.
Who but the Lord Jesus Christ can change lives from within; protect us by his grace; give peace with God and the peace of God; renew minds through his word and Spirit; equip us by his indwelling power; and provide the Comforter alongside us at all times?